I've been struggling a lot lately, wrestling with the future of the church. How do we respond as Christians to a world that has been hurt by the church, without becoming defensive and without doing more damage than has already been done? How do we get out into the world and meet people where they are? How do we love our neighbors? How do we show grace without ulterior motives and instead REALLY listen to what people are trying to say to us?
If you keep up with Twitter (I don't, but fortunately I have friends who tell me when something important happens), you may have noticed that one of the trending hashtags over the last week is #emptythepews. You can see some of the tweets here:
Where did this hashtag come from? You can read the article from Patheos here:
The article explains:
Christopher Stroop, a former evangelical, thinks there’s only one thing that will convince these leaders to stop backing Trump: Their church members have to walk away. The loss of tithe money and the awful optics of a shrinking congregation is the only way they’ll ever change. To that end, he began the hashtag #EmptyThePews a couple of days ago to collect stories from evangelicals (and other ex-Christians) who walked away from their churches, explaining what the final straw was.
Although, I personally find this article deeply frustrating (for a number of reasons), it is important, I think, for us to pay attention to what is being said with this hashtag. Here are some examples of why people are leaving and continue to leave:
"I walked out when pastor said women in trousers + intelligence were from the devil"
"When the pastor's daughter told me I wasn't one of the chose ones. I was 15"
"The pastor preached: Divorce never makes anything better. I'm sitting next to a battered woman who's just separated"
The stories go on and on. Some of the stories are greatly disturbing. Some are angry. Some are frustrated. Some are hurt. Some, you may think are not worth leaving over, some would make most of us run for the hills...
Now before you get mad at me, I have a lot of very dear friends who voted for and support Trump. I have a lot of church members who voted for and support Trump. These are people I talk to and have face to face conversations with every single day. We don't hide behind computer screens and put one another down, but we talk to each other. We listen to one another. We have community together. I know that these are good people. These are people who visit the shut-ins, who reach out to their neighbors, who help one another. These are good people.
That said, there is a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of people in the way that evangelical Christianity seems to be so closely tied to conservative politics. The problem is that it's not reflective of the love that exists within the church. It's not reflective of the grace I've seen people show to one another. It's not reflective of the covered dish dinners and casseroles and the way we reach out when someone in the community is hurting.
MY CHURCH, even though we don't all have the same politics is a family. It is a group of people who love and care for one another. It's a group that notices when someone is missing. We are a group that needs work. We are a group that needs to improve. We are a group who has probably hurt some people over the years. I would say this is probably true of ALL churches. The moment we think we're doing it right or that we have all the answers is the moment we block out the voice of truth, and we stop listening to where the Spirit is moving us.
I'll tell you what really struck me in reading these #emptythepews tweets is that MOST of the problems, most of the hurt didn't come from church members, but it came from the PASTOR not being an effective leader. It came from the pastor being a voice of hatred and intolerance from the pulpit. It came from things other than love and the gospel of Jesus being proclaimed from the pulpit. It came from pastors sharing their own agenda, their own politics, rather than equipping people for ministry. Rather than sharing how Jesus loved on the fringes. Rather than sharing how Jesus sat with the poor, the oppressed, the prostitutes, the beggars, the tax collectors. Instead they shared words of judgment.
I'll admit it's a temptation that is real for many of us as pastors. We stand in a place of privilege where we are given the ability to share every week. There are often times things I want to say from the pulpit, and I have to spend a lot of time in prayer to remind myself that this calling is not FOR me and it's not ABOUT me. It is not my place to just share what I think. Rather, it is a place to teach, and to equip, and to minister. That doesn't mean that we don't speak the truth in love. It doesn't mean that we don't offer accountability. But the pulpit shouldn't be used as a place of oppression.
My first thought when I saw #emptythepews was to get defensive. We don't need anything else pulling people away from the church. We are already declining, we are already suffering and we are already hurting. What the world sees of us is too much hatred, and judgment, and it's not reflective of who Jesus is, and it's not reflective of what the church is called to be.
I've been in church my entire life. I KNOW church people. I know that our politics are different from what we put into action. I know people who believe that the government shouldn't offer assistance programs to people who need them, but would turn around and give their last dollar and the clothes on their back to help someone who needs it. Just because their politics say something, doesn't mean their actions do, and THAT's the truth of the church that so many people don't see. It's complicated and it's messy, but loving people is complicated anyway.
If I didn't LOVE these people, I wouldn't be here. If I didn't believe this with my whole heart, I would have left the church too. But I have a different idea for #emptythepews. Maybe instead of showing why we are leaving the church forever, maybe we should #emptythepews to extend our love and ministry into the world. Maybe we should be going out and meeting people where they are. Maybe we should be leaving the church building and feeding those who have nothing to eat.I promise you, many of these people are doing it already. We just don't see it.
Church, this is our time to make a movement. This is our time to show that the church is love. And PASTORS, use your pulpits to say what Jesus has called you to say. It is not your personal political platform. Read these testimonies from Twitter. Even if they offend you. Listen to the voices of people who have been hurt by the church and let's work to make it better. Let's work to reach those who are leaving. Let's work to care for those who are missing from our pews, even if we disagree with them. And maybe, just maybe, emptying the pews could save the church.